Advocates of an overnight passenger train that would connect Montreal with Boston, Portland and Old Orchard Beach have about two months to reach an agreement with freight railroads that own the route if they want the service to start next summer.
If the group misses that deadline, it will try for the summer of 2015, said Francois Rebello, the Montreal entrepreneur behind the project, called the “hotel train” or “night train.”
“We hope we can still do it by next summer, but it’s not the end of the world if we have to wait,” Rebello said Thursday after meeting in Montreal with more than 30 supporters of the project, including officials and business leaders from New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine.
Many at the meeting gave Rebello $250 checks made out to “Fondation Trains de Nuit,” which means “Night Trains Foundation.”
Rebello, a former politician in Quebec, would not say how much he raised, but said it was enough to create a detailed operating plan, which is required by the railroads that own the lines between Montreal and Boston.
The project has strong grass-roots support in Maine, said Rick Bennett, who has invested a “modest” amount of money in the project.
Bennett, who in July was named chairman of the Maine Republican Party, was contacted in the spring by Rebello, a friend, for help getting support in Maine. Bennett, who lives in Oxford, said the project would bring economic development to western Maine.
The train would stop in Bethel, and Rebello said stops could be added for Auburn and Oxford.
The service would provide a passenger rail connection between two of the largest population centers in eastern North America, a link that was severed a half-century ago.
Because the train would travel at speeds of just 30 to 35 mph, it could run on the freight lines’ tracks without the expensive rail upgrades that would be needed for high-speed service, Bennett said.
“The brilliance of this proposal is that it doesn’t require that level of investment in the private or public sector,” he said. “You could use the rails pretty much as they are.”
Rebello said the train would leave Montreal at 6 p.m. and arrive in Portland 12 hours later. Passengers could eat dinner, relax in a lounge and then sleep in a sleeper car. He said the train would get into Boston around 8:30 a.m.
The train also would run from Boston back to Montreal at night.
Rebello said a one-way trip would cost $150. Initially, the train would run only from mid-June to mid-September.
He said there is a ready market of transit-savvy Canadians who don’t own cars but want to visit beaches in Maine.
Mainers who attended Thursday’s meeting in Montreal included Sarah Glasfeld from the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, Michael Coleman of Old Orchard Beach, Amy Volk, a Republican state representative from Scarborough, and Tony Donovan, a commercial real estate broker in Portland who leads the Maine Rail Transit Coalition.
Another group, the Golden Eagle Railway Corp., has proposed a daytime train between Portland and Montreal. That would let passengers get on and off at stations along the route at a decent hour, rather than in the middle of the night, said David Schwanke, president of Golden Eagle Railway.
Rebello’s night train proposal is more likely to succeed because it would connect two large cities and because passengers could save money on lodging, said George Betke of Damariscotta, who has an ownership stake in three short-line railroads, two in Oklahoma and one in New York.
Although the project wouldn’t require tax dollars, Rebello could use political help in getting the railroads to consider the proposal, Betke said. The key player is the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad, which owns the portion of the route between Auburn and the outskirts of Montreal.
Rebello would also have to negotiate with the Canadian National Railway, which owns the short stretch that connects with Central Station, Montreal’s major intercity rail station. Pan Am Railways owns the tracks between Auburn and Plaistow, N.H. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority owns the tracks in Massachusetts.
Officials from the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad could not be reached for comment Thursday. The railroad is a subsidiary of Genesee & Wyoming, which owns numerous short line freight railroads all over the country.
The St. Lawrence & Atlantic does not move as much freight as many other Genesee & Wyoming railroads.
While allowing passenger trains on its line in northern New England would generate revenue for the company, Genesee & Wyoming might not want to set a precedent that would encourage passenger rail on busier lines it owns elsewhere in the country, Betke said.
Also, liability insurance for a passenger service would be hugely expensive, said Don Marson, who retired in June from his job as vice president and general manager of the Maine Eastern Railroad, which operates summer excursion trains between Brunswick and Rockland.
Marson said the night train would have to stop for two hours at the border of the United States and Canada to give customs and border control agents time to interview passengers and inspect their bags.
“The hotel train – I don’t think it stands a snowball chance in hell, myself,” he said.
Rebello said the train would be stopped at the border for only a hour.
“It’s not perfect,” he said. “But it’s something you can live with.”
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at: